Thursday, April 22, 2010

John Lanchester - Whoops!: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay (2010)

Knowledge may be power, but sometimes acquiring that knowledge seems too tiresome a task. In this light – and given that my professional life increasingly involves knowledge about global finance and economics – I’ve been attempting to get past the usual click:off response that my brain has in regard to anything about economics, in order to try to actually gain some understanding of the way power structures in the world operate, inseparably intertwined as they are with financial issues.

My first foray into this field was Joseph Heath’s Filthy Lucre: Economics For People Who Hate Capitalism, a slightly misnamed book given that its premise was the debunking of influential economic myths from both the right and the left, but nonetheless an interesting and informative read. My next step into the labyrinth of boring and incomprehensible jargon that is economics – not known as 'the dismal science' without reason – was John Lanchester’s new book (published in the US as I.O.U), which belies that discipline’s often well-earned reputation.

One of my problems with trying to understand these issues, as someone with a background squarely in the humanities and, to a lesser extent, the social sciences, is that even if I look up basic explanations of particular financial instruments (presumably so called because we all get played) on Wikipedia, I have to back up four or five pages in order to understand the concepts behind them. The issue here is that it’s an entirely different discourse, with all kinds of assumed underlying knowledge – I imagine mine is a similar sensation to what an economist would feel reading, say, Can The Subaltern Speak? or The Archaeology of Knowledge (i.e. this is boring, pointless, jargon-filled cobblers). The point regarding postmodernism is one to which I’ll return – but Lanchester’s book is a different story altogether. Lanchester is a novelist – his first book, the delightfully black The Debt To Pleasure (which won the Whitbread) is a particular favourite of mine, but I also enjoyed his others, Fragrant Harbour and Mr. Phillips. So when I heard that he had unexpectedly written a book on the Global Financial Crisis (GFC), I thought it might be a good place to continue my conceptual pursuit of Mammon. The book has its genesis in Lanchester’s research for a novel involving aspects of the GFC (and Fragrant Harbour, a novel of Hong Kong, was partially concerned with the human impact of global finance as reflected in that deeply trade-focussed city), and a prescient article which he wrote just before the GFC broke.

Given this background, Lanchester’s is a lucid and blackly humorous introduction to the processes which made the GFC possible, from an outsider’s perspective which doesn’t assume any previous familiarity with – well, anything he talks about, really. I now understand derivatives - options and futures, collateralized debt obligation, credit default swaps, securitization and a host of other nasty acronyms (the book could’ve used an acronym index). And I understand what actually went wrong with the financial system (if one makes the, in my opinion incorrect, assumption that it was somehow right before any of this happened). And basically, it was this: it became entirely postmodern.

The arcane nature and mind-boggling mathematical complexity of economic processes is not just incidental; it’s actually a central part of the reason why a catastrophe like the GFC could occur. It means that insiders all think in the same ideology – the more risk, the more profit; mathematical models can accurately reflect real-world behavior; limitations on particular types of trade and instrument are imposed by clueless outsiders and are there to be bent and broken (Lanchester suggests that an appropriate metaphor would be if the invention of seatbelts were to be taken as indicating that drunken speeding should now become standard practice). The failure of outsiders to understand these processes, combined with an unwarranted trust based on the shared quasi-religion of neoliberal ideology, meant that governments failed to rein in institutions either before or after the crash – a fact which contributed to heedlessness of institutions fully aware that they were too big to fail (indeed, in complete contradiction to the unfettered free market ideology which supposedly guaranteed the success of the global financial structure, the crash itself simply provided what Naomi Klein calls ‘disaster capitalism,’ a perfect opportunity to transfer more money from the public to the private sector and, despite some sharp but meaningless words, to shore up the lack of accountability of powerful individuals and institutions). This was combined with the arrogance of workers in the sector who are, as Lanchester points out, in immediate touch with proof of their rightness every time they make a successful financial decision, in contrast to most professions, where right or wrong decisions are generally more grey-shaded, less quantifiable. All of these things led to a situation in which those in the industry were completely insulated from any commonsense view of the probabilities and risks with which they were dealing.

But perhaps the most fundamental issue here is the aforementioned fact that finance went post-modern. As new instruments were invented to insure against risk and to ‘leverage’ initial capital into ever bigger sums – which in turn led to incentives to make irrecoverable loans and a drop in the perceived necessity for capital reserves against unfortunate, but now supposedly impossible, market downturns or runs – transactions were no longer attached in any meaningful way to their initial base, while attitude – in terms of bullish projected confidence, optimism and expertise – came to dominate analysis (a trend Barbara Ehrenreich documents in her brilliant work Smile or Die). Thus it was that nobody noticed that it was fundamentally impossible for a complicated system of refracted abstract meaning to transform a myriad of home loans to the destitute into a lasting financial bonanza. In this sense, postmodernist thinking (of which, let it be known, I am by no means a critic) is far from an ivory-tower game of inaccessible and meaningless jargon; rather, it is a reflection of the actual characteristics of the so-called ‘real world’ (if by ‘real’ we mean actually-existing structures of power with massive impacts on global living conditions), and the best tool to use to understand these characteristics.

But the question on everyone’s lips in relation to this situation is: who’s to blame? Those who have an interest in taking the heat off the banks and financial institutions blame politicians or the consumerist public’s insatiable desire for free money and disregard for the future (or, in the most right-wing scenario, China), but the fact is, not one point of this unholy trilogy - a Bermuda triangle into which cash keeps on vanishing - is off the hook. Addicted to consumerist capitalism, the pursuit of happiness through materialism, and lockstep free market ideology, these things are in fact not even separate as such, but facets of the same underlying societal malaise. And while John Lanchester looks mainly at the former, if you’re looking for an introductory explanation to this deplorable state of affairs, there’s no better place to start.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Music: Briefly Noted

Mulatu Astatke - New York, Addis, London: The Story of Ethio Jazz 1965-1975 (2009)
Addictive ethio-jazz which miraculously combines a dark, smoky feel with a soulful gutsiness, reminiscent in mood of the concurrent-ish work of Augustus Pablo.

Manuel Göttsching (Ashra) – New Age of Earth (1976)
A fluid creation of electro(guitar) ambience which, like all the best work of the genre, is both interesting and complex as the subject of attention, while also forming a pleasantly atmospheric background wash blending warm and cool textures, and employing repetition and variation as central elements. Göttsching’s work is a unique historical bridge between krautrock/kosmische, thoughtful dance (more evident on his seminal E2-E4) and ambient.

Cold CaveLove Comes Close (2009)
Imagine that Ian Curtis, rather than committing suicide, had remained the lead singer into Joy Division’s New Order period. And got into some seriously dancey beats – without losing the melancholia or the atmospheric guitar jangle-n-fuzz. Not highly original, but highly recommended nonetheless.

Lawrence – Lawrence (2002)
The Sight BelowGlider (2008)
Dark, ambient beats with an influence from minimal techno and drone/shoegaze, whilst also infused with an eighties indie miserablist sensibility. Points of reference: Wolfgang Voigt, Bowery Electric, The Smiths. See also: Mikkel Metal - Victimizer.

‘It’ bands the obscurantist in me doesn’t want to admit loving: Neon Indian (chillwave: could it be the best genre ever? See also Millionyoung, Small Black); Grouper (if some reverb is good, more must be better – and she was so right about that).

Honourable mention in 'It' band category: The XX (fantastic music, shame about the lyrics).

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Ti West - The House of the Devil (2009)

While the maxim that there’s nothing new under the sun is subject to itself, nonetheless, the last decade has seemed especially blatant in its carbon-copy revivals of old genres (in music and cinema, especially). On the one hand, one doesn’t want to revile this trend, because, despite the fact that I sometimes think that the more obscure corners of a past genre provide endless avenues of exploration, there is a limit to that material – whereas genre revival not only provides more, particularly for those with less access to rare or out of circulation material (these days often related to at least a certain level of tech savvy), but also gives the opportunity to participate in the existence of the work as a contemporary moment, which has its own pleasures. But one does wonder whether there isn’t a certain sterility to the entire endeavour – why one would set out to create an artwork which is as close as possible to an already-existing moment.

On this note, The House of the Devil is a film which, down to the last detail, recreates the eighties horror genre film – and we’re talking here not about the eighties revival which revels in its own kitsch excess, but rather a muted version which seeks to emulate not how we now imagine the period, but a work which was actually created in the period itself. In this, it is extremely successful, and there is an appreciable pleasure to the high-waisted, college-town, synth-rocked environment in which the action plays out. The plot revolves around Samantha (Jocelin Donahue), a college student in need of some fast cash, and a babysitting assignment in a spooky house in the forest outside of town, which is by no means all that it seems. The plot is entirely unoriginal (the title says it all), and the pacing is uneven – a very slow tension build followed by a sudden and extreme climax which, without sufficient introduction, seems ridiculously over-the-top (and I make this criticism as someone who’s generally a fan of the slow and moody build in horror, as opposed to the ultragore-heaped-upon-gore strategy). The house itself, as a space, is perhaps the film’s greatest achievement – neither a classically ominous pile, nor the incongruously haunted modern edifice of films like Paranormal Activity. There are some very fun cameos by Mary Woronov as the creepy Mrs. Ulman, and Greta Gerwig as Samantha’s Valley Girl-esque friend Megan, who features in an unexpected moment of violence in what is perhaps the film’s most successful scene. Overall, however, the period atmosphere alone doesn’t carry the film, while the plot is too unoriginal and uneven to take up the slack – as my friend put it, this is perhaps a truer facsimile of the bad eighties horror movie than the director intended.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Richard Wenk - Vamp (1986)

This camp horror-comedy gem from the 1980s lies unjustly neglected in the cult vaults… but, pursuing my mission to give new (un)life to the contents of the 1980s (Society, I’m looking at you), I bring you a film which features as its centrepiece an undead Grace Jones, with white and red body paint and props by Keith Haring, performing a striptease (Ms. Jones’ costumes throughout are provided by Issey Miyake, naturally).

The plot is simply told: a duo of likeable wiseguys, desperate to join a fraternity, promise to bring a stripper to the frat party that night. But, heading from their wholesome country town into the urban and moral decay of the big city in pursuit of this goal – or should that be ‘score’? – the strip club they choose turns out to be one in which they will become the objects of the wicked desires of the (vampiric) inhabitants, rather than vice versa. Visually, Vamp is a treat – particularly the spectacular presence of Grace Jones, as well as Billy Drago as an albino bad boy – and it features a rip-roaring synth-rock 80s soundtrack remniscent of others such as Once Bitten - I'm currently addicted to Stallion's 'Let My Fingers Do The Talking', a song which is not quite as sleazy as it sounds, but almost - not to mention a cameo by that stalwart of the Asian sterotype, Gedde Watanabe.

The gritty post-industrial streets, greasy spoons, and, in this case, sewers of the decaying 80s cityscape, familiar from other works including Batman and Howard the Duck, provide a nice sense of atmosphere. Despite the setting, the homoerotic (or should that be bromantic?) undertones (not to mention the classic conflation of sex and danger so commonly present in the vampire trope, here reworked in the service of the 80s teen sex comedy) are not far below the surface (gentle reader, have you ever found yourself insisting that you sleep in your same-sex buddy's bedroom with only honest intentions?), particularly in the oddly moving scene in which AJ (Robert Rusler), having been turned, begs Keith (Chris Makepeace) to stake him (and that pink tuxedo!) – while the suggestion of straight romance seems like a nod to commercial tropes rather than a heartfelt inclusion. Finally, who could not love a film in which a skeleton flips the bird? Fangs for the memories…

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Cluster - Qua (2009)

As far as krautrock goes, I’m more a fan of the kosmische, the ambient and the motorik moments than of the riotous long-form hippie-era free jams in which the genre had its inception – apart from Cluster, other favourites include Neu! (a band whose full potential is sadly only realised in a few songs), Harmonia, Kraftwerk’s Ralf und Florian, and Manuel Göttsching/Ash Ra Tempel’s New Age of Earth (not to mention the wildly influential E2-E4). But if one was to think that the creative force of this movement, if movement it can be termed, was largely spent by the early eighties, Cluster’s 2009 album Qua (their first in fourteen years) demonstrates that this was not the case universally.

Despite the seminal quality and historical importance of their earlier work, in particular Zuckerzeit and Sowieso, Qua is, I think, Cluster’s finest moment (although After the Heat is a strong contender). This is an album which manifests their finest qualities – a pop melodiousness which is filtered through a lens of experimentation which means that it never manifests in the traditional song form but rather lends a quality of the unheimliche, the familiar residing in the unfamiliar (and/or vice versa) to their work – along with an understated musical sensibility in which the content of the music unfolds itself at the listener’s pleasure, equally amenable to playing the role of Satie’s furniture music (and Satie, for me, is a key reference point for Qua), but also, like the work of the corduroy-suited composer, to serious engagement, a fascination with the intricacies of ambience and minimal (though not necessarily repetitious) sound. On this note, one is reminded of the way in which David Lynch’s early work draws one into the microscopic world of the everyday, and there is a similar cinematic quality here, though without the overtones of melodrama and anxiety which haunt Lynch.

Rather than the more usual lengthy explorations of the krautrock oeuvre, the pieces on Qua tend to be short (with the exception of the stunning 'Gissander,' which clocks in at just under seven minutes), and in this they bring to mind found objects, whose purpose remains indeterminate and mysterious, but also not a question of importance. In these electronic explorations, there is nothing resembling a hook as such – this is music which dissolves as one listens to it. I’m reminded of the cover, and indeed the mood, of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Touching Feeling (a work concerned with scale and texture) – a photograph by artist Judith Scott – or of Foucault’s memorable description of aphasia in the introduction to The Order of Things:

‘when shown various differently coloured skeins of wool on a table top, [they] are consistently unable to arrange them into any coherent patterns … within this simple space in which things are normally arranged and given names, the aphasiacs will create a multiplicity of tiny, fragmented regions in which nameless resemblances agglutinate things into unconnected islets: in one corner, they will place the lightest-coloured skeins, in another the red ones, somewhere else those that are softest in texture, in yet another place the longest, or those that have a tinge of purple or those that have been wound up into a ball. But no sooner have they been adumbrated than all these groupings dissolve again…’

In other words, there is something deconstructive happening here, but also a sense of order inasmuch as that is both implied and denied by objects in a space; and it is in this paradoxically peaceful space of tension – which could also be viewed as the tension between observation and affect, and the in-trinsic directed exploration of spaces in which the two processes coexist parasitically – that Qua locates itself, and into which it draws the listener.